THE BLOG
09/27/2013 05:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

Homeless Advocates Cooperating: It's an Art Form

The Texas Conference on Ending Homelessness was this week in Austin. More than 400 homeless advocates -- from shelter directors to student liaisons -- came together to update their certifications, learn from each other, and recharge their spent fuel cells.

Ken Martin, executive director of the Texas Homeless Network, was encouraged by their near record turnout in the face of budget cuts and an increasing demand on overtaxed service providers. The economic downturn over the last half-decade -- since the stock market crashed in October of 2008 -- has caused an uptick in homelessness all across the nation. Because agencies have to do more with less, Martin and his organization provided free booth space to not for profit agencies hoping to interface with the advocates who attended the conference.

Art from the Streets is one of those not-for-profit groups.

Founded by a couple of artists in the 1990's, Art from the Streets is preparing to host its 21st art show and sale this November. Homeless artists from Austin have been creating and selling their work with encouragement and materials provided by Art from the Streets. Only recently an official 501(c)3 charity, all paper, canvas, and pigment mediums came from donors who hadn't even gotten a tax break for their contributions.

Every Tuesday and Thursday St. David's Episcopal Church opens their doors to volunteers and street people who work together producing the pieces that will be sold each year. With very rare exception - like when the artwork has to be mounted - the street people who create the art get all the proceeds from the sale. If there's an additional expense to the work, that expense is taken out of what the artist is paid.

One of the original artists from Art on the Streets, Howard Cook, spent Thursday touching up the pieces he intends to sell in November's show. The 56-year-old Cook was born and raised in Austin. Cook is what the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calls chronically homeless. That means Cook has been verifiably homeless for more than a year. In fact, he's been that way for decades.

HUD regulations changed this year. They now require that agencies prove their clients don't have anywhere to live. Luckily, Art on the Streets doesn't receive HUD funding and the participating artists don't have to jump the often out of reach administrative hoop of proving a negative in order to participate.

Cook doesn't identify as a homeless man when he's painting. Katrina Meredith, the volunteer at Thursday's painting session says it's like that for most of the artists. Meredith explained, "Homeless is a category to stick people in. There's a certain intensity when they come in to do art. They go to straight to work. There is a time in that period that there is a feeling of peace, of productivity, of focus, of normalcy for people whose lives are very chaotic." That transformation is why Meredith volunteers, "In this space there's a calmness that I like witnessing that keeps me coming back."

For Cook, homeless is more than a category; it's the condition that prohibits his painting every day, "I wish I had my own place, I'd stay up to 4 or 5 in the morning." It's also why Cook can't use oil paints, "Oil dries too slow. I'd like to paint with it; it's a nice color and everything. When you got your own house you can wait for your work to dry."

Cook said he started painting when he was a baby. He's sure of it. He can't remember a time when art wasn't important to him. And more than anything he'd like to be known for his art not for his homelessness, "Everyone wants to leave your name in history. I want my name in the encyclopedia and make a little living too." Right now, it's that making a living that's the most important thing of all, "Money's tight and people got to eat. People come to our program and they buy good art."

Cook's also spoke about the Arts from the Streets program expanding. He thinks that's essential because there are more homeless everyday, "Houses are burning up, places are flooding out and people are losing their jobs. These are the times we live now." So Cook wants everyone who still has a home to come to their show, "People who still got it need to thank God that they ain't out here yet."

Ken Martin and the rest of the Texas Homeless Network agree. That's why Art in the Streets got their free booth at the conference. Martin said, "Times are too tough for advocates right now, for us all to be on our own. We're happy to work with other agencies."